Numerous incidences of marine mammal strandings or deaths indicate their presence and point to possible threats in Malaysian waters.
For instance, some of these incidents include the newborn dugong caught accidentally in a fisherman’s net in Pasir Gudang, Johor in 1999; a strayed dugong calf first sighted in the waters off Terengganu (Kapas Island) in August 2006; the stranding of an injured Bryde’s whale in the shallow waters off Kota Kinabalu in December 2006; and the unfortunate incident involving a ten-metre-long Bryde whale found beached at Sungai Nenasi estuary, Pahang in October 2008; to name a few.
As such, although marine mammals are still being sited around Malaysian waters, the overall population appears to be continuously dwindling at an alarming rate.
In general, there are various threats to marine mammals’ survival such as traditional hunting for meat, starvation, vessel collisions, dynamite fishing, entanglement in fishing gears, diseases, degradation of seagrass areas caused by sedimentation, pollution from coastal development and palm oil plantations, and other anthropogenic threats to the survival of the mammals or their habitats.
The slow growth and low reproductive rate of most of the marine mammals’ species further impedes their population’s recovery in the long term. In addition, their generally high trophic levels and degree of habitat specificity make them even more vulnerable.
Marine mammals belong to the endangered animal species group and are currently protected under the Fisheries Act 1985 and the Wildlife Act 1972 in Malaysia.
At present, 20 species of marine mammals are listed under the act. However, the list is obsolete because they were generally based on sightings and reports of stranding and autopsy of carcasses found.
Although great concern and public outcry has been shown over the fate of marine mammals; the scarcity of research, information on species composition, and distribution of marine mammals are little known. These hinder the overall efforts to draw an appropriate management plan for marine mammals in Malaysia.
Charting the Strategies
Looking at all these issues, it was of an opportune time for the Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA) to organise a one-day seminar titled Marine Mammals Conservation in Malaysia: Adopting Sustainable Management Strategies earlier this year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Among the major aims were to highlight pressing issues facing marine mammal conservation in Malaysia, discuss and generate realistic conservation and management strategies towards sustainable and effective management of marine mammals, besides giving priority to efforts to educate the public and implement realistic conservation and management strategies to avoid their extinction.
Besides five distinguished speakers, more than 40 participants/stakeholders from government agencies, private sectors, universities, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were present at the seminar. During the forum, participants listened to presentations, exchanged ideas and experiences, as well as engaged in healthy discussions to address their concerns on the issue of marine mammal protection in Malaysia.
Overall, various threats to the protection and conservation of marine mammals in Malaysia were highlighted and discussed in detail during the seminar; which warranted attention and perhaps new approaches to be undertaken before the populations deplete beyond recovery levels. In line with that, several management strategies were suggested during this seminar.
The seminar on Marine Mammals Conservation in Malaysia: Adopting Sustainable Management Strategies, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Some of the main issues and options are as listed below:
- The present research on marine mammals, their habitats, and problems relating to their environment are currently inadequate. Although great concern and public outcry has been shown over the fate of marine mammals, the scarcity of research, information on species composition and distribution of marine mammals is little known; thus hindering the effort to draw an appropriate management plan for marine mammals in Malaysia.
- In relation to this, the importance of handling marine mammal strandings in the most efficient and appropriate manner was also stressed so that information extracted can be maximised for future uses. At present, much of the vital information from these events was lost due to the lack of necessary and appropriate action.
- Although national laws exist to protect marine mammals, there are still various gaps that need to be addressed for their conservation in the country’s waters.
- There is a need to have an immediate, committed and concerted effort to educate the public, monitor fisheries, enforce conservation laws and conduct detailed assessment of the dugong and small cetacean populations and their habitats, else there may be little hope to reduce or eliminate the threats and thus presenting difficulties in maintaining their present number of marine mammal populations in Malaysian waters.
- Suggestion for the establishment of a special area of conservation through stakeholders’ participatory process was thought to be a holistic approach to address ecosystem-based conservation at the local level. One such example highlighted was Sungai Pulai located in Johor, Malaysia, which is a highly productive estuarine ecosystem characterised by mangroves, mudflats, seagrass beds, rocky shores and coral reefs. Due to its rich ecosystem, this area hosts a number of endangered marine species, prominently the dugong and seahorse.
- Taking practices in some of the other countries as examples, several concepts or plans were also suggested for the protection, conservation and minimisation of threats to marine mammals. Some of these include the establishment of marine protected areas, focal species identification for conservation purposes in an area, community-based conservation approaches, adoption of recovery plans for specific species, guidelines for best practices through sustainable ecotourism, and long-term monitoring and educational programmes for the local people.
However, the endeavors towards successful protection and conservation of marine mammals in the country definitely do not stop here. MIMA is continuing with the study on Marine Mammals Conservation in Malaysia: Issues, Problems and the Way Forward for 2009 and hopes to produce some viable and forward looking recommendations, in cooperation with various stakeholders on the matter; to address issues involved in marine mammals’ protection and conservation in the country.
Cheryl Rita Kaur
Researcher, Centre for Maritime Security and Environment
Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA)